Kwarteng-led UK science council downgraded to advisory body

New minister Nusrat Ghani tells MPs that research spending commitments remain ‘in place’

October 12, 2022

The revived National Science and Technology Council has been downgraded from a Cabinet subcommittee to an “interministerial group”, the UK’s new science minister has confirmed.

In her first public appearance since her appointment, Nusrat Ghani told MPs that she welcomed the return of the cross-governmental committee on science that was created by Boris Johnson in June 2021 but scrapped soon after Liz Truss became prime minister. On 12 October, however, it was announced that a “new National Science and Technology Council” would be led by the chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng “with responsibility for driving an ambitious UK science and technology strategy”.

Speaking at the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee shortly after the council’s return, Ms Ghani said that the science body would be an “interministerial group” with fewer decision-making powers than the Cabinet subcommittee that was previously led by the prime minister.

That distinction mattered, explained the committee’s chair Greg Clark, because a Cabinet subcommittee can “take decisions” while interministerial groups “can advise”.

However, Ms Ghani insisted that the council would be “driven by the same principles as before”.

“It will be led by the chancellor and what is really important is that I will be there, my secretary of state will be there and it will be ministerially focused and driven,” she explained.

“It is a great opportunity for us to get everyone in government…to be clear about the data around R&D [research and development], and also show why it is value for money, and how it helps the government deliver its agenda about being inclusive, greener, knowledge-driven, and [having] an innovation-driven economy,” Ms Ghani added.

“What matters is that we have a really good programme of work and we deliver for science and R&D,” she concluded.

Asked about the status of the UK’s efforts to join Horizon Europe, Ms Ghani confirmed that the government still hoped to associate to the European Union’s flagship research programme, but its application had been blocked by Brussels over proposed changes to the Northern Ireland protocol which regulates how goods move between the province and mainland Britain.

“The truth is the EU is in breach of an agreement on [the UK’s] participation in the [Horizon Europe] programme – the EU has politicised the programme by inappropriately linking Horizon with the protocol,” she said.

“We have done everything we can to secure this [association] but the ball is not in our court,” Ms Ghani continued, saying it was important to “make sure there is an alternative if we have to pivot”.

Asked about problems at UK Research and Innovation in processing “Horizon guarantee” applications, in which the UK research funder takes over the role of the European Research Council and funds research bids, Ms Ghani pointed out that some £240 million had been paid out under the guarantee, which indicated “some success”, she said.

With a reported two-thirds of applications yet to be processed as of August, however, Ms Ghani said that she would “raise it with UKRI to see if there is a resource issue”.

Ms Ghani also assured MPs that the government had no intention of reneging on its science spending commitments that will see overall funding rise to £20 billion a year by 2024-25, and to £22 billion by 2026-27. Those spending levels had been confirmed by Treasury ministers, she said, stating “those commitments are in place”.

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